The Health Benefits of Dietary Plant Diversity
By Lisa Patterson
With our busy schedules and fast-paced lifestyles, it’s easier than ever to get stuck in a rut when it comes to our daily dishes. Often we can find ourselves struggling to think of meal ideas, and turning to the same old recipes week after week.
If you’re in need of a little inspiration to change things up in the kitchen, you might find that the health benefits of including a diverse range of plants in your diet does just the trick!
Firstly, what exactly is dietary plant diversity? To put it simply, dietary plant diversity is simply including a number of differing plant foods within your daily diet. These can include any vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, herbs or spices. Ideally, they are enjoyed in their whole, unprocessed form.
So what counts as a plant-diverse diet? In a study known as the American Gut Project (McDonald et al. 2018), researchers found that participants who consumed 30 different plants per week experienced a greater number of health benefits compared to those who only consumed 10 plants. This data has been replicated in numerous other studies, suggesting that aiming to consume 30 (or more) unique plants each week is optimal.
The benefits associated with increasing the diversity of plants within your diet are extensive, and include improvements in digestive and mental health, body weight management and the reduced likelihood of experiencing nutritional deficiencies, to name a few.
In particular, improvements in gut health are strongly associated with a varied plant-focused diet. There are a few reasons for this, which we’ll explore further below.
The first reason is the increased consumption of fibre. Found only in plants, fibre is the key to great gut health.
While well-known for promoting healthy bowel motions, fibre also acts as a fuel source for the beneficial microorganisms within our gut.
These beneficial microorganisms are essential not only for our gut health, but also for our entire wellbeing.
Our gut microbiome consists of trillions of microorganisms, mainly bacteria, who are involved in numerous functions essential to our health - from our skin, to our mood, immunity and lowering chronic disease risk (Ravinder et al. 2019).
The balance of our microbiome is dependent upon the diversity of these bacteria species.
As each species feeds on different plants, the best way to ensure a diverse microbiome is to consume an array of plants regularly (Baden et al. 2020).
To put it simply, plant diversity = microbial diversity.
So how do we include 30 different plants in our diets each week?
While it may sound daunting, there are a number of simple methods to increase your plant count. Seasoning your dishes with various herbs and spices, adding extra greens to your smoothie, snacking on a handful of nuts or sprinkling seeds over your breakfast are all easy ways to add extra plants into your day. Incorporating recipes which call for multiple plant ingredients such as curries, stir fries, salads or buddha bowls are also perfect options. Perhaps there’s a particular vegetable or fruit you enjoy, but don’t often include in your grocery list? Or a cuisine that you could explore?
The options are endless, and the benefits are too!